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Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

Nyx (2011)
Commissioned by Radio France, Carnegie Hall, Atlanta Symphony, Barbican Centre and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Chester Music Ltd
Year Composed
17 Minutes
Programme Note
Nyx is my return to the genre of pure orchestral music since Helix (2005). It employs a large orchestra, and has exposed concertante parts for solo clarinet and the horn section.
Rather than utilizing the principle of continuous variation of material, as is the case mostly in my recent music, Nyx behaves rather differently. Its themes and ideas essentially keep their properties throughout the piece while the environment surrounding them keeps changing constantly. Mere whispers grow into roar; an intimate line of the solo clarinet becomes a slowly breathing broad melody of tutti strings at the end of the 18-minute arch of Nyx.

I set myself a particular challenge when starting the composition process, something I hadn't done earlier: to write complex counterpoint for almost one hundred musicians playing tutti at full throttle without losing clarity of the different layers and lines; something that Strauss and Mahler so perfectly mastered. Not an easy task, but a fascinating one. I leave it to the listener to judge how well I succeeded.

Nyx is a shadowy figure in Greek mythology. At the very beginning of everything there's a big mass of dark stuff called Chaos, out of which comes Gaia or Ge, the Earth, who gives birth (spontaneously!) to Uranus, the starry heaven, and Pontus, the sea. Nyx (also sometimes known as Nox) is supposed to have been another child of Gaia, along with Erebus. The union of Nyx and Erebus produces Day.

Another version says that Cronos (as Time) was there from the beginning. Chaos came from Time. Nyx was present as a sort of membrane surrounding Chaos, which had Phanes (Light) at its centre. The union of Nyx with Phanes produced Heaven & Earth.

She is an extremely nebulous figure altogether; we have no sense of her character or personality. It is this very quality that has long fascinated me and made me decide to name my new orchestral piece after her.

I’m not trying to describe this mythical goddess in any precise way musically. However, the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods as well as a certain elusive character of many musical gestures may well be related to the subject.

I have always enjoyed the unrivalled dynamic range of a large symphony orchestra, but Nyx seems to take a somewhat new direction from my earlier orchestral music: there are many very delicate and light textures, chiaroscuro instead of details bathing in clear direct sunlight. I guess this is symptomatic of growing older as we realize there are no simple truths, no pure blacks and whites but an endless variety of half shades.

Nyx was commissioned by Radio France, the Barbican Centre, Atlanta Symphony, Carnegie Hall and the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. It had its first performance in Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in February 2011 in the final concert of the Festival Présences. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was conducted by the composer.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
1 October, 2011

  • Ensemble
    Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
    Leila Josefowicz
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Deutsche Grammophon:
  • 04 MAY 2020
    Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall / Tokyo / Japan
    NHK Symphony Orchestra
    Robert Spano, conductor

The Greek goddess of the night is portrayed in a modern orchestral spectacular, one with enough content not to be just another skilful exercise in texture. At its best, the music has the most articulate light touch — the murmuring horns, the lyrical clarinet solos, the fleeting strings and flutes like racing high-altitude winds. Salonen’s Nyx could give Don Juan and Don Quixote, the subjects of two of Strauss’s tone poems, a run for their money.
Financial Times,20/04/2015
The dense orchestration was dappled with soupçons of indigenous music, folk, noir, Harryhausen Hollywood and French impressionism.
The Spectator,20/04/2015
Nyx by Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen summoned up the eponymous Greek goddess in sinuously seductive clarinets...when it came to spinning a diaphanous rustling texture, or making a huge string chord that faded by infinitesimal degrees (as happened very strikingly in Salonen’s piece) they were fabulous.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph,20/04/2015
This 20-minute piece, fabulously scored and never less than ear-tickling, was called Nyx after the Greek goddess whom Salonen describes as "an extremely nebulous figure". His music did anything but nebulise her. With virtuosic parts for solo clarinet and the entire horn section, and a stylistic eclecticism anchored in Ravel, Messiaen and Stravinsky, it was lush, enjoyable and gnomic: a succession of hugely contrasting moods, each brilliantly evoked but without suggesting why one preceded or followed another.
Richard Morrison, The Times,20/04/2015
This is an eclectic, almost postmodern piece for a very large orchestra, full of stylistic allusion and dynamic twists, which somehow retains a unifying character and direction. The confidence with which it moves from quirky little slurs in the low strings to a full-on Latin percussion fest in a few bars is merely one striking example of the way Salonen’s score deftly reinvents itself in vivid ways.
Martin Kettle, The Guardian,19/04/2015
Richly textured, with layers of interlocking sound, Salonen’s work is tense at times, the resonant lows of the bass underscored by an impressive rumble from the percussion. From the speculative sounding pizzicato of the celli and bass to the crack of percussion calling to mind a cinematic chase scene, the orchestra’s sound is never less than resonant, the swiftly shifting textures smooth and controlled.
John Millar, Golden Plec,18/04/2015
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